Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Sombre Day In Phnom Penh: Part One

After arriving in Phnom Penh Airport and going through customs, the first thing that struck me as odd and really quite sad was the sign that read: “please don't touch our children”. If you weren't aware before you entered the country, this polite request informs you that Cambodia has a problem with child abuse. It's not long until you realise that Cambodia has other problems too. Exploring Phnom Penh, particularly away from the more tourist friendly areas, along with the obvious problem of poverty, you notice that a higher than normal proportion of the Khmer people have disabilities. To be more precise, you notice many of the local Khmer are missing limbs, usually a leg, sometimes both. Whether or not you came to Phnom Penh to learn about Cambodia's horrific not so distant past, it's hard not to be touched and intrigued by the struggles that the Cambodia people have endured and still endure, as is clearly visible. For me personally, a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21tourture prison) and Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) were essential. As Sombre as visiting these sites would surely be, I wanted to further understand what and why happened in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

So on my first full day, I found a taxi, arranged a price for the day, and set off a little later than planned due to the previous late night and customary hangover. First stop Tuol Sleng. Making our way through Phnom Penh's traffic I noticed how disjointed and unruly motorists seemed to be. I was given a taster of the city's road etiquette as I walked through the city the evening before. I had tried crossing the road and failed on several attempts as motorists not only drove on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic, they actually came at you from all angles, forcing you to scan an area of 180 degrees before crossing. This is a lot harder than it sounds as the roads were packed with motorists, mainly motorbikes, who liked nothing more than to change direction at the last moment with no prior warning. From my view out of the back of the taxi, I tried to assess the roads from a motorists perspective, but still couldn't work out why I had not yet seen an accident. I was later told by a French National who now resides in the city, that although it looks extremely chaotic and disorganised, there is an understood system that works, for the most part anyway. That said, traffic accidents are apparently extremely common.

We arrive at Tuol Sleng and I enter. Originally a school, it was used by the Khmer Rouge during their time in power from 1975 to 1979, as a prison, torture chamber and interrogation centre. Once you've paid at the entrance you walk through into a courtyard which consists of three dirty and drab looking concrete buildings, positioned towards the back and sides. Centrally is a well maintained garden area, adding a little colour and an air of serenity to an otherwise dreary and depressing scene. Laid out to the side of the garden was a small graveyard. My day grew ever more sombre and reflective from this point on.

For the most part the multi storey buildings contained two types of rooms. The larger rooms were capable of holding several prisoners and were used for interrogation and torture, while other rooms were holding cells and were divided into many much smaller cells, some probably able to accommodate only a single person. I started with the larger rooms in the building to my left. Each room was dirty, dark and depressing. Some were completely empty while others contained metal beds, torture equipment and had photos of blood stained floors and lifeless victims shackled to beds. Going from room to room I slowly began to immerse myself in my surroundings, trying to imagine the horror and dread the victims would have felt, knowing the only thing they had to look forward to after the pain and humiliation, was death. A strange mood enveloped me, one that was new and alien, and one that is very hard to explain. I think it stemmed from the realisation of just how sick and heartless a human being must be in order to carry out such atrocities. To watch someone suffer in that way would be unbearable, but to be the cause of that suffering, well, it takes someone either inhuman or someone who is so afraid of succumbing to the same fate that they dare not disobey their orders. For humanity's sake, I truly hope that for the majority of Khmer Rouge who committed these heinous and horrific acts of barbarism, they did so out of an innate sense of self-preservation, and not because they in anyway wanted to. It allows for much more hope if one believes that a few unhinged, cold and heartless individuals some how forced or coerced the majority through threats, intimidation and indoctrination. 

Having pushed such grim thoughts to the back of my mind I moved on to a part of the museum that exhibited photos; lined up were rows and rows of pictures of both the victims and the perpetrators. That strange mood quickly came back, even more intense than before. The cold emotionless expressions of the young looking jailers were quite chilling. What were they really thinking? Did they really believe that what they were doing was for the greater good? The ages of the victims varied more, ranging from young boys right up to middle-aged adults. Some were photos of them as new arrivals, others showed the bodies of the dead having already been through hell. The photos that have been permanently welded to my consciousness are that of a young mother and baby. After these photos were taken, the mother would have suffered unimaginably through interrogation and torture, probably already aware that no matter how she responded, execution would be the outcome. What would have happened to the baby I'm not quite sure, but I suspect as torture would have been useless, death would have come quicker. The Khmer Rouge did a thorough job of documenting every prisoner who came through S21; of the 14,000 who were sent herefor interrogation, there are only 7 known survivors.

I continued on to the building situated at the back of the courtyard where inmates were kept in small holding cells. While some cells were wooden with peep-holes in the doors, others were simple door-less brick structures with no other features except a single metal shackle. Both were dank and would have been extremely uncomfortable places to stay.

Time was getting away a little, plus I felt I had seen enough, so I walked through the courtyard and exited out the other side where I found my amiable little taxi man. “Choeung Ek we go” my taxi man informed me. So the Killing Fields we went.

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